Claire glared at the ceiling, snatched her mobile phone from the nightstand, and peered at the clock. It was two forty-nine in the morning. Listening to Stressed Out by Twenty-One Pilots was the last thing she wanted. Or needed.
Sometimes she wished she could turn back the clock six months earlier to the reading of Uncle Lamb’s will. She would have refused to move if she had known it would be difficult to get a reciprocal license to practice in Scotland.
Then you’d have deprived Faith of her inheritance. Live in this house for two years, and Faith gets her share of the money. And what’s two years of chilly summer days, gnats, and changeable weather?
Oh, sod off. Uprooting herself and living in Scotland the whole year was what she signed up for, and she knew it.
“… Wish we could turn back time to the good old days—”
Faith, her eight-year-old adopted daughter, would have found the song sweet, albeit old. Ditto the hits of Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber preceding it. But these songs weren’t cool when blasted past two in the morning and after she had assisted with a grueling six-hour surgery.
Good thing Faith’s bedroom was at the back, and she was a very sound sleeper.
Claire smiled, casting her thoughts back to dinner several hours ago.
“Please, Mam, just thirty minutes more,” Faith begged after she stowed away the last plate.
Claire stopped drying her hands, her attention caught with Faith calling her mother. It had been Aunt or Claire ever since Faith learned to talk. Tears filled Claire’s eyes, but she willed them away.
“Sweetie, it’s nine now, and I have to be at St. Hildegard Gen by seven.” Seeing Faith’s disappointed face, she added, “We talked about this earlier, remember? I must be there and help that little girl. I’ll be free for lunch, though, and we’ll spend the rest of the afternoon at Deep Sea World.”
“Mam, thank you!” Faith cried and hugged her around her waist. “I promise to finish my homework tomorrow morning."
"Okay, okay! Now, it’s time to brush your teeth and wash up,” she said. Dropping a kiss on Faith’s head, Claire hugged her then turned her around toward the stairs.
“I’ll be up in a bit, sweets. Remember to wash behind your ears,” Claire instructed with mock severity.
Faith looked up at her and smiled, rushing off to do her bidding.
“… you bring me to my knees, you make me testify—” Bruno Mars sang out.
Shaken from her pleasant musings, Claire started then sat up. The new song had decidedly NC-17 lyrics. Dang! There wasn’t any hope for it now.
Throwing back the covers, Claire snatched up an old grey flannel robe from the armchair where she had tossed it earlier. Taking a wool scarf hanging from the back of her bedroom door, she wound it around her long, graceful neck.
“… make me feel like I’ve been locked out of heaven—” blasted into the night.
She wanted to lock her unknown neighbors out of their house. She stomped down the stairs, through the dark house and put on the wellies leaning drunkenly beside the door. Unarming the alarm, she closed the door behind her with a decided click.
“Shoot, it’s cold!” She crossed arms against her chest as she made her way down the sidewalk to the house next door. “Respectable neighbors. An ideal place to raise Faith, my foot,” she muttered. Claire promised herself a treat next week—she’d throttle Ned Gowan, the Scottish solicitor, for his blatant lie about the advantages of accepting the terms of Uncle Lamb’s will.
Claire didn’t understand it! They lived in an affluent neighborhood of two-story houses where extensive gardens separated properties. Everyone on their street should have heard the same things she did, but no one had notified the police. Not yet, anyway.
She stopped, her eyes catching a flash of red. She blinked at the parked sports car by the curb, reflecting the glow of the streetlamp in front of the house next door.
“So what if you’re an expensive car? I don’t care. Whoever your owner is, he’s still an inconsiderate show-off,” she told the car off.
Claire continued without delay, grimacing at the racket coming from the house. The door was intimidating and appeared to be of solid wood. Using the heavy knocker would get her nowhere; whoever was inside wouldn’t hear it. She began thumping on the door to relieve some of her irritation, pressing on the buzzer at the same time.
“Hello,” she shouted just as someone inside threw the door wide open.
Goosebumps raised the flesh of her arms as she stared in disbelief at the person outlined in the doorway.
“And who the fuck are you?”
Hell, she thought. Geneva Dunsany’s my neighbor!
Claire’s onetime girl crush stood a few feet away, one black-tipped hand resting on a cocked hip.
Silhouetted against the light was Geneva’s voluptuous body, draped in a filmy red peignoir. Shiny chestnut hair cascaded in waves down her back.
Claire was thrilled. She was embarrassed.
Get a grip on yourself. And don’t cuss! So what if you loved her romcoms to the exclusion of anything else?
But it didn’t matter now that Geneva was once Hollywood’s brightest ingenue. Her daughter was asleep and alone. And, she had a patient who, in less than three hours, would need her skills as a pediatric surgeon. It was not the time to be star-struck.
She squared her shoulders. “I’m Claire Beauchamp, and I live next door.” She pointed toward her house and raised her voice. “Could you turn your music down?”
“Yeah? It’s Friday night. Lighten up!” Geneva shouted.
Heat coursed through her body as Claire fought against the compulsion to grind her teeth. That was so not the right answer. Not when she had a procedure in three hours, and definitely not when she had to leave her warm bed to venture outside where it was less than fifty degrees.
“I can’t,” she yelled. “Listen, I left my kid home, and your music’s too loud. Lower the volume. Please!”
Geneva looked her up and down.
Claire would have laughed at the absurdity of being in a shouting match with her if she weren’t an ex-fan. Yet, here she was, torn between screaming and ogling the actress. There was admittedly, much left to admire. Though in her early forties, Geneva was still beautiful with a voluptuous figure that would catch anyone’s eye.
But enough of that.
“It’s three in the morning! I’ve got to be somewhere important later. It’s a little girl—” her voice trailed off as another sound registered in her head.
Claire turned, her heart sinking when she saw a black pickup maneuvering to park in front of the red car. A quick look at a now-smiling Geneva confirmed her suspicions.
Uh, oh, Daddy’s home.
Aware she was about to be outnumbered, Claire tried to get Geneva’s attention again. “Please, turn the music down, and I promise I won’t report this,” she yelled in desperation.
Geneva continued to ignore her, staring beyond her shoulder, playing with a lock of hair over her shoulder. Then she smiled.
“Hi babe,” she called out in a sultry voice.
Claire turned around in resignation, preparing to make a run for it then froze.
A muscular man, taller than anyone she knew, was striding up the path, a dark leather jacket covered his broad shoulders. Claire gulped.
He was stunning as he came into the light. His cleft chin and forehead were both prominent, but they worked together. High Slavic cheekbones, long, thin-bridged nose, and a defined jawline completed his handsome face.
Then there were his eyes, sky blue, and piercing, with a slight upward slant, making his face even more arresting. All that, framed by wavy red hair made him hot in a compelling way.
He was glowering though, eyes focused on Geneva. Then his eyes cut to Claire as he stopped beside her. She didn’t know how but his eyes held hers, something indefinable shifting in them.
Wrenching her eyes away, she glanced at Geneva in time to see the other woman lose her smile and slump against the doorjamb.
Jamie stalked toward Geneva and pointed at her. “Jenny told me you were squatting in my house. Enough. Get out!”
“Jamie—” Geneva said. Arms raised to reach out dropped to her side with his next words.
“You have the brass to show up here, of all places,” he cut her off. Continuing inside the house, he disappeared, Geneva turning to watch him. The music stopped abruptly.
Claire sighed in relief, realizing she’d attained her goal. It was now time for her to go if she didn’t want to witness any make-up sex between Geneva and the Jamie person. Claire turned, preparing to make a run for it.
The man returned, still livid but more in control. “And where do you think you’re going?” he barked.
Claire whirled, fists clenching against her thighs. Was this stranger addressing her?
“Who do you think you are talking to me that way? I’m not the one at fault here!”
“I know you’re not,” he answered, face softening by degrees. “But I need you as a witness. Who knows what lies she’ll spread once the press gets hold of this?”
“I would never!” Geneva snapped. “And stop talking about me as if I weren’t here. The press will never know unless she,” Geneva pointed at Claire, “says something about it.”
“I know she won’t. You, however, are not above leaking such news yourself if it suits your agenda,” the man answered with a lift of an eyebrow.
“Jamie, darling, I just wanted—” Geneva began, but he cut in.
“I should haul your ass out and convince this lady here to file a complaint against you for disturbing the peace.”
Geneva glared at her.
“And don’t even think about turning the tables on her. I don’t know who she is, but from the look of things, she’s one of my neighbors.”
“Then, let her go! You already did what she asked, so why are you making her stay?” Geneva shrieked.
Claire stepped back as a precautionary measure. Those talons of Geneva looked sharp.
“You need a reality check.” he seethed. “Christ, how many times must we go over this? You’re not my girlfriend, my wife, or my partner. You’re not even my client anymore.” He took a step nearer the actress. “You stole my key and the code to my alarm. I should, by all rights, drag you to the station and let the polis handle it.”
“You bastard! For the past year, I’ve done nothing but follow your orders—”
“And I could still get you on charges of theft, malicious harassment, breaking, and entering,” he finished for her. “You didn’t even notice I wasn’t returning your calls, texts, or emails? Your head’s so far up your ass now?” he jeered.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, this was just a joke! Your reaction’s over the top,” Geneva snapped.
“I don’t have to explain anything to you. I’ll just go get your bags and throw you and them out,” Jamie warned.
“Honey, let’s talk about this—”
“Get the fuck out,” he roared.
Geneva stumbled, then tottered on her heels, past him, to the rear of the house.
Deciding it was safe, Claire turned again to leave. She squeaked when Jamie reappeared at her side. He was standing too near, head bent toward her, staring into her eyes.
“Please, stay,” he said in a gentle voice, at odds with how he spoke with Geneva. “I would like to make amends for putting you through this.”
His voice was beautiful, she thought in a daze. It did all sorts of things to her insides, putting inappropriate thoughts in her head. But she had to refuse.
“I have to return. There’s a young child I left alone for far too long.”
His face hardened, but his voice got low and husky. “I apologize for this mess. Geneva has this idea we’re together and won’t let it go. She’s followed some of my friends and employees. And, she’s stalked my social media accounts, those of my family and female clients for over a year.”
“Well, serious psychoses aside, we women don’t do things like this. Unless we feel we have a claim,” she said blandly. “If you aren’t aware, the tertiary stage of syphilis may cause spinal and brain damage. As men rarely exhibit symptoms, I advise you to get a checkup for all sexually transmitted infections. And please, do it as soon as possible.”
His face morphed into an expression she couldn’t decipher. Then he began laughing, blue eyes narrowed, lit with mirth. It was unfair. He was even more gorgeous with his nose scrunched up, white teeth flashing.
Claire’s heart skipped a beat.
Taking command of the situation, she added, “You just shared too much, but whatever. You should quit laughing, though. Geneva’s about to come out.”
Sliding off the wellies, she made her way to her bedroom, leaving her outer clothes to fall in her wake. She climbed in bed, stretched out a hand to switch on a lamp. Trembling, she pulled up the covers to her neck.
What happened? For a moment, she’d been tempted to lean into him and laugh companionably at the ridiculous situation in which they had found themselves. And since when did she get all fluttery inside while standing close to anyone?
He’s one of the most attractive men you’ve met, but he’s crude and overbearing. Still, aren’t you wondering how his hands would feel on your skin? The texture of his hair as you clutch at it? And whether his voice in your ear would make you melt?
Oh, shut up, she chastised herself then turned on her side. She glanced at the two frames on her nightstand, comforted by their presence. In the dim light, she couldn’t make out the details of each person, but it didn’t matter. She’d memorized the features of each precious face in her heart.
One was of her parents, taken on their twelfth wedding anniversary, just months before their accident. They looked young and so much in love, with their arms around each other.
The other was of Uncle Lamb, one-year-old Faith, her sister, brother-in-law, and herself during Christmas dinner six years ago. They were all laughing, unaware it was their last Christmas together.
“I miss you guys,” she said, voice choking with unshed tears.
The frames didn’t answer. They never did.
What the hell happened? As Jamie watched the woman run, he could have sworn his heart squeezed painfully in his chest
“Oh, hell no!” he hurled the imprecation into the night. “Geneva! I’m starting a countdown and if you’re not out by one—”
She ran down the stairs in her stilettos. On any other day, he would have enjoyed the view of her tits and ass jiggling. But not tonight. He couldn’t appreciate her physical charms, knowing what she was. Or the damage she could do.
Besides, a most unlikely woman had already caught his attention.
“There’s no need to be nasty. You’ll regret this, Jamie. I swear, you will!” Geneva screamed at him.
“Don’t let the door hit you on your way out,” he answered snidely.
Getting in her car, Geneva drove off in a huff, tires squealing.
Jamie took out his phone and called her agent in Glasgow. “Your package is on the way. Take care of her next time, Dave. I mean it. Send someone to watch out for her.” He sighed, knowing the other man wouldn’t do shit. “Now listen up. This is the last piece of advice you’re getting from me.”
He ended the call without waiting for a reply. The slimy worm didn’t care for Geneva as a person, he knew. She was his cash cow, his investment for retirement. Why she kept him on, he never understood.
For a second, Jamie pitied her. Then his heart hardened, thinking back on his family’s suffering this past year. Of terminated contracts and threats of lawsuits. And all because of the delusional bitch.
Going to the bar, he poured himself a whiskey neat. Downed it in one swallow. Pouring another glass, he walked to his study, where he had a clear view of his neighbor’s house. A light on the second floor was visible from where he was sitting. He’d bet his last pound that was her bedroom. Perfect, it was right across from his.
Jamie had returned to Edinburgh from Glasgow because of his sister’s phone call a few hours before.
“You’d best get your ass here, brother. Geneva’s in your house, playing loud music. It won’t be long before the polis arrives, and what a mess it’ll be!”
Jamie apologized to his date, a beautiful brunette actress with whom he’d made plans weeks back. She was his type, tall and slim—an airhead. There would be no talking about anything of substantive value. It suited him just fine to get down to the mindless screwing part right after dinner. It was what Jamie wanted and needed.
What infuriated him wasn’t the loss of an easy lay. He had to take the M8 as it was the shorter and faster route than the two alternatives. He never wanted to pass Falkirk and the outlying areas ever again.
Jamie held his glass up to the light. His foster brother Fergus had already once discussed his theory about their parents’ relationship. He’d teased him, in fact, the cheeky duffer.
“Don’t laugh, Jamie! Coup de foudre is real!” Fergus shrugged and added, “If you’re lucky, it will come to you, but only when you least expect it.”
It had happened to his parents. Jamie himself was ambivalent and cynical enough not to trust his feelings. He didn’t have it in him anymore to be impetuous. Not when he considered his previous marriage and his track record of failed relationships.
His neighbor mentioned she had a child at home, didn’t she? For all he knew, she had a husband. He repressed a sudden surge of jealousy.
He got up and stretched, then climbed the stairs to his bedroom. Jamie had the weekend to discover more about his beautiful neighbor. Jen would most likely know the latest gossip. Then he’d decide if he wanted to act on the attraction he felt.
He would not lose any sleep over it.
His last thought before sleep pulled him under was the woman next door. It was cold outside. Would she be catching a chill from tonight’s fuck-up?